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Going Back to School at Retail

31 Aug 2023

As part of their ongoing mission to help clients stay ahead of the competition in a fast-paced, constantly evolving marketplace, The Mars Agency’s Customer Development practice closely monitors the strategic activity taking place across all key retailers and channels.

Each month, the practice compiles Marketplace Assessment reports on retailers (Walmart, Target, Amazon, Kroger, Best Buy, Ulta) and channels (Regional Grocery, C-Store, Drug, Value, Pet, Club, Beauty, Home Improvement) that are most important to the business success of our clients. The following report outlines six noteworthy events across the retail landscape from the team’s most recent round of assessments. (To receive copies of the full reports, contact Group SVP Kandi Arrington at [email protected].)


This year’s back-to-school season had retailers focused on gaining and retaining shopper loyalty. Despite ongoing inflation woes, shoppers planned to spend 15.7% more this year compared to last season — in part to accommodate expected higher prices, according to a survey conducted by JLL. While some parents expected to kick off the season by shopping in June (34% of respondents), and July (61%), the vast majority (90%) planned to hit stores in August. Most respondents said they would shop with a mass merchandiser (78%) or an online retailer (68%).

Retailers recognized that shoppers were starting the season earlier and looking for ways to save on supplies. Read on to see how six leading retailers responded to those needs and how brands can continue using these marketing opportunities to their advantage.

Walmart Supports Teachers, Families & Schools

The Story: With teachers expected to spend more than $800 of their own money on classroom supplies this year, Walmart launched an all-new Classroom Registry to help alleviate that financial burden. This new feature makes it easier for educators to plan, shop and share their classroom wish lists with parents and other would-be donors. Similarly, the retailer is offering classroom supply lists curated by school districts.

Additionally, two new programs let shoppers lend a hand at the school level throughout the year:

  • The Spark Good Registry lets them purchase items for donation from a school-level list of needs.
  • Round Up allows them to make cash donations by rounding up to the nearest dollar on their receipts at checkout.

Relevance: In addition to the new tools, Walmart has held prices on many standard school supplies to last year’s levels. All of these capabilities positioned Walmart as an even more advantageous one-stop shop for the season.

Opportunity: Brands should ensure that their Product Detail Pages on are updated and develop strategies for driving traffic there. As Walmart continues rolling out digital tools that give shoppers more avenues to access products, it’s important to keep all relevant brand pages easy to navigate. And for tips on driving traffic, read our recent report here.


Target Heads Back Early

The Story: As soon as the July 4th holiday passed, Target unleashed sales and promotions both online and in-store. Promos ranged from discounts for teachers and school lunch ideas for parents to deals on school uniform essentials. The retailer also launched “College Shop,” which provided affordable and inspiring solutions for older students. This was an omnichannel campaign that included numerous brand buy-in opportunities.

Relevance: Rolling out early deals and launching solutions for college students, Target continued to be highly competitive during this busy season. And with home essentials rival Bed, Bath & Beyond closing its doors halfway through the seasonal window, Target was particularly optimistic about attracting back-to-college shoppers.

Opportunity: A July start to the season means that marketers need to start researching trends for next year’s BTS season much earlier in 2024. Brands should also consider developing early-, mid- and late-season messaging and promos (similar to the holidays) to capture the attention of Target guests at each stage.


BJ’s Stocks Up

The Story: From school supplies to bulk snack boxes and furniture for college dorms, BJ’s Wholesale Club showed up for its shoppers. The retailer placed a particular emphasis on helping parents and students get prepared with essentials for the dorm room.

Relevance: BJ’s has been committed to being a one-stop shop for the season, particularly by featuring the aforementioned items at appealingly low prices. For the college crowd, they’ve tried to strike a balance between affordable prices and trendy designs to make their homes-away-from-home a special place.

Opportunity: As BJ’s works to make the shopping experience easier for members, bundled deals on products can go a long way to pleasing both the retailer and their members.


Kroger Unleashes the Savings

The Story: Kroger rolled out “Locked in Low” prices of $3 or less on more than 250 key school supplies. The promotion made shopping a little easier for parents by guaranteeing affordable prices on the necessities throughout the BTS season.

Relevance: Kroger has been increasing their focus on BTS to better compete with mass merchants, using their omnichannel capabilities to offer order fulfillment in stores, at the curb through Kroger Pickup, or via home delivery. The strategic initiative was even recognized by seasonal giant Crayola, which named Kroger a Best-in-Class retailer for their BTS aisle.

Opportunity: As Kroger continues building their reputation as a BTS destination, brands should explore partnership opportunities that will keep their products top of mind. As the Boost by Kroger Plus loyalty program gains momentum, they should consider exclusive offers for members.


Club Publix Hosts First BTS Event

The Story: Publix used the BTS season to activate their first-ever digital-only savings event via Club Publix. Conducted alongside the grocer’s typical in-store promotional activity, the effort required shoppers to register for Club Publix to access additional savings on key products.

Relevance: Since launching in 2020, Publix’s first-ever loyalty program has grown to more than 13 million members. But the retailer has been reluctant to run exclusive events because they’ve consistently promised that customers wouldn’t have to become Club Publix members to gain access to deals.

Opportunity: The BTS event might imply more unique Club Publix opportunities in the future, as well as plans for the retailer to integrate the loyalty platform into the shopper experience more often. As Publix learns from this program and continues shaping their ecommerce capabilities, brands should talk to their merchant partners to discuss activation priorities and explore ways to get involved.


Sam’s Club Takes MAP to School

The Story: Sam’s Club used the BTS season to execute their largest multi-supplier Member Access Platform (MAP) campaign thus far. With over 70 participating items, the club chain curated essentials around the clock this season.

Relevance: The MAP retail media network continues to elevate their multi-supplier game by staging more and larger events. The programs are great for brands, since the shared activation costs make participation easier and more attractive compared with costlier, more hands-on solo campaigns.

Opportunity: Beyond the BTS season, brands should keep track of upcoming micro-occasions that will get their products in front of shoppers as MAP pursues more events to activate.


The Mars Agency’s Customer Development practice is an unrivaled team of in-market commerce experts who simplify the complexity of retail for our clients. Located in Bentonville, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Chicago, Tampa and the “backyards” of other key retailers, they provide deep knowledge of the retailer, expertise in key business areas (like strategy, media and creative), and door-opening personal relationships with key executives to deliver an unmatched level of business success for clients across accounts, channels and shopper engagement platforms. For more information, contact Group SVP Kandi Arrington at [email protected].

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